After spending five days in a detention center, Irma walked into the interview with a border patrol agent ready to tell him why she fled her hometown in Honduras and the horrors she experienced traveling through Mexico.
“When the man [border patrol] that interviewed me told me they would be dumping me in Mexico, I started crying,” she said. We’re not using Irma’s real name because she’s afraid the cartel that kidnapped her will go after her family.
Irma didn’t understand how she was being sent back to Mexico — the same country where she and her 12-year-old son were kidnapped for 63 days earlier this year. In late September, border patrol agents released her in Matamoros, Mexico. She didn’t have money or a place to live, and her court hearing was in December, more than two months away.
But Irma said she couldn’t go back to Honduras. She fled the country at the beginning of the year after gang members violently attacked her son after he refused to join their gang.
And Irma was terrified of living in the country where she had been kidnapped. She saw how the cartel members beat up the men and she saw how the women were pulled out of the room and taken to a separate room. Then it happened to her.
“When they came to pull me out of the room, I was sleeping. And they took me into another room. When a man started assaulting me, I started praying for him,” Irma said crying.
Irma is one of hundreds of migrants and children living in tents with limited access to water, food and basic resources. More than 56,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico since the Trump administration issued the Migrant Protection Protocols, which is also known as the “remain in Mexico” policy earlier this year. In Matamoros, volunteers delivering food said at least 1,300 migrants live in tents next to the international bridge.
Trump has expressed multiple times the desire to stop Central Americans from coming to the U.S. and seeking asylum.
“The system is full, can’t take any more. Sorry folks,” he said during a press conference in April.
The administration also implemented another policy in July that limits the flow even more. The rule denies asylum to Central Americans, if they’ve traveled through other countries where they didn’t seek protection. For example, in Irma’s case, she would have to seek protection in one of the countries she passed through on her way to the U.S. — either Mexico or Guatemala.
Critics of his new policies say President Trump is “dismantling” the asylum system.
The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the “remain in Mexico” policy in court.
“We are challenging it on a number of grounds because it’s clearly illegal,” said Judy Rabinovitz, director of detention and federal enforcement programs with the Immigrants’ Rights Project of the ACLU.
“It’s an unprecedented policy that basically undermines the whole process of right to apply for asylum,” Rabinovitz said. “And that the whole purpose of sending people to Mexico is to keep them from being able to apply and make people go back to their own country.”
Rabinovitz said Matamoros is not a safe city and the Trump administration knows that.
“Those places are known to be so dangerous that the [U.S. Department of State has given them] a level four travel advisory, which is the same as Afghanistan and Syria, that people should not go there because these places are controlled by the cartels,” she said.
Matamoros is in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which has held a level four travel advisory since January 2018, according to a U.S. Department of State website. The state department advises that Americans “do not travel” to Tamaulipas due to crime and kidnapping.
“Violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, is common. Gang activity, including gun battles and blockades, is widespread,” the website states. “Armed criminal groups target public and private passenger buses as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments.”
The asylum seekers waiting for their hearing in Matamoros rely on donations from Americans who cross the bridge daily to bring food, baby formula, clothes and shoes.
The migrants have limited water. Many of them are forced to bathe in the Rio Grande. A few weeks ago, children found a decapitated body floating in the river.
And basic access to health care is limited. There are dozens of migrants living here with chronic illnesses like diabetes. When a woman collapsed from a heat stroke migrants couldn’t get an ambulance to come and help her until reporters contacted the Mexican government.
It’s almost impossible to build a strong asylum claim while homeless, living in these conditions and without access to an attorney, said Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the University of Houston Law Center.
Asylum seekers are 14 times more likely to win their claim in court, if they have an attorney, Hoffman said. Successful asylum claims often require expert reports, country condition reports and psychological reports.
Hoffman said asylum cases can take years to get a final ruling because the backlog is up to one million cases in immigration court.
“It’s very difficult for somebody to represent themselves. It’s a very complicated process,” Hoffman said. “They have to supply corroboration in the form of evidence. It’s a lengthy process, and it’s a very unfair process, if they have to wait for their day in court outside the United States.”
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.